London-based yoga teacher Stacie Graham has made it her mission to make the ancient practice more ethnic and social, urging her protégés to become “warriors for change” in the booming industry.
Yoga, which originated in India, and Pilates — a form of exercise that focuses on postural alignment — are now a $30 billion annual industry, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
But behind that success lies a lack of diversity that is affecting the entire fitness industry, argued Graham, who also serves as a corporate diversity policy consultant.
“Here we are in London. If you walk into a space where there’s a gym or a yoga studio, you probably won’t see ‘London’ but typically white, female, able-bodied — middle class — attend,” she said.
“And my question was: How is that possible?”
A survey of yoga teachers and practitioners in the UK by medical studies site BMJ Open found that 87 percent were women and 91 percent were white, about 10 percent more than the national proportion of whites.
Graham just published the book Yoga as Resistance to help industry professionals expand their clientele.
– ‘Subtle Exclusion’ –
She also regularly convenes workshops with other teachers, practices yoga, and plans on how to diversify the industry.
“You want to be warriors of change, yoga gives us all we need for this fight,” she tells her charges as they perform the Warrior 2 pose; one leg bent, the other stretched back and arms horizontal like arrows.
Attendee Ntathu Allen, who specializes in “breathing and healing sessions” for women of color, told AFP that sometimes she’s asked “if I’m really a teacher” when she arrives at a new studio.
Pam Sagoo, owner of Flow Space Yoga in London’s multicultural Dalston area, was also at the workshop.
“You only have to look out the window and look at the people … to know that you have to reach out to a wider audience,” the examples of black, older and LGBT people are given.
It’s a similar situation in the United States, where “there aren’t many black women in these spaces and it doesn’t encourage others to enter,” Raquel Horsford Best, a Los Angeles-based teacher, told AFP over the phone.
Teachers and owners partly blamed access problems, economic factors, and the difficulty of keeping the studios afloat.
In order to be profitable, studios often charge high prices. A single session in London costs around £20 which may beat many.
But Graham points to “more subtle” exclusion factors, such as a performance-driven atmosphere that deters those who are less flexible, less lean and older.
As a result, many people who could “really benefit” from yoga, such as those suffering from pandemic-related mental health issues and long Covid, are missing out, she added.
Despite the awareness created by the Black Lives Matter movement, Graham believes economic constraints are preventing studio owners from making the effort and investment necessary to make yoga more inclusive.
The first step would be to diversify the recruitment of teachers and staff. “They should recruit more color teachers, LGBT people and Asians,” urged Raquel Horsford Best.
And, of course, making tuition more affordable.
For example, Sagoo offers significant discounts to beneficiaries and free courses to certain associations.
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